Have you had enough of rush-hour traffic jams on the morning commute? Fed up with your kids bickering in the backseat? Then maybe you need to have some fun in a car for once – so here’s our guide to the UK’s best driving experiences.
Supercars and drifting
‘Take your hands off the wheel, then stamp on the gas.’ As sentences go, it’s certainly an attention-grabber. But my instructor Bill is absolutely serious. He’s telling me how to ‘drift’ our Mazda MX5 – that is, get it round with the track with the back end hanging out as much as possible. Essentially the aim is to stay permanently side-on. But while we’ve all taken a roundabout slightly too fast and started to lose control, keeping control of that loss of control is way more difficult than it seems. Too little power and you go straight on, too much and you spin completely, possibly ending up in the fields surrounding the Drift Limits track (which occupies an old airfield near Hemel Hempstead). But it’s fantastic fun, especially on the demonstration laps where you sit in the passenger seat. Bill takes full advantage of the oil-based substance sprayed onto the track to make it more driftable.
There’s also a larger track on which you can enjoy the company’s collection of supercars. Again Bill’s instructions contradict all your instincts. ‘Stay on the gas,’ he says, as a looming corner has my right foot heading irresistibly towards the Lamborghini Gallardo’s brake. It’s only when we’re overtaken by another instructor showing a customer what the Aston Martin Vantage can do that I believe Bill. Not that my foot will believe my brain, so to see how fast the track can really be taken, I let Bill’s colleague Tom drive me round in the Nissan GTR. Three laps later my legs are jelly, my stomach has headed north and my shoulder has a perfect impression of the seatbelt marked onto it. ‘That was 650 brake horsepower,’ says Tom calmly. ‘We can dial it up to a thousand.’ ‘Christ,’ I say, ‘what’s the car like then?’ Tom considers the question. ‘Borderline undriveable.’
Drift Limits, Runways Farm, Upper Bourne End Lane, Hemel Hempstead, HP1 2RR: https://driftlimits.co.uk
‘Real racing cars don’t have doors.’ So says our instructor Chris Alford, known to everyone here at Silverstone as ‘Alfie’. And after two minutes in a single-seater – think mini-Formula One car – you know what he means. The engine noise is staggering, and with no windscreen or roof to insulate you, the track passing by just inches from your backside feels very real indeed. (That’s once you’ve got started – the racing clutches on these cars mean they’re incredibly easy to stall.) To get the most out of this experience you’ll need to be a good driver, and sufficiently au fait with race track etiquette to remember that a blue flag means ‘let the driver behind overtake you’. Neither my partner nor I are this au fait, so at the first flag I panic and come into the pits (a bemused Alfie puts me right), while Jo blocks a quicker driver. Even then she pulls over to the left expecting him to overtake on the right (you’re supposed to do it the other way round). But eventually we stop making idiots of ourselves, and indeed at one point I find myself overtaking Jo. Needless to say this has to be accompanied by a two-fingered salute. Equally needless to say, I hold the salute for slightly too long, thereby forgetting the sharp right-hand bend that appears as if out of nowhere. My brakesjuststop me in time, though not without the car stalling. As I struggle to restart, Jo passes by. She performs a salute of her own.
Silverstone Circuit, Towcester, Northamptonshire, NN12 8TN: https://www.silverstone.co.uk/experiences/driving-experiences/silverstone-single-seaters-thrill/
In a way, the Land Rover experience doesn’t feel like driving at all – these vehicles are so clever they can literally drive themselves. At one point Ro (short for Rowena) gets me to back our Discovery up to a steep flight of steps, one of the course’s many fiendishly inventive obstacles. She presses several buttons on the computer system (as far as I can tell it’s been borrowed from the Space Shuttle), then tells me all I have to do is steer. The Discovery proceeds to climb the steps backwards, applying its own power and braking, learning from the slope as it goes. Even spookier is the car’s ability to drive itself downhill– as at Drift Limits, instinct keeps pushing your foot towards the brake. But you do get to take control as well, for instance on the tilting platform – this is horizontal as you drive onto it, but then gets tipped forward by the vehicle’s weight. ‘What happens if you take it too fast?’ I ask. ‘The vehicle will cope with the drop,’ replies Ro, remembering a colleague’s experience. ‘But the instructor’s face turns very pale.’
The hugely entertaining course also involves driving through several feet of water, along a slope that tips you alarmingly to the right and left, and up hills so steep that all you can see is sky. One such slope was tackled by an instructor driving a group of potential Range Rover customers. Initially disbelieving, a rough-necked farmer in the back leaned forward to the clergyman in the passenger seat and exclaimed: ‘F*** me, vicar, I think he’s going to do it!’
Land Rover Experience, nine centres around the UK: https://www.landrover.co.uk/experience-landrover/find-a-centre/uk.html
Should you fancy a bit of time-travel with your motoring, the Historic and Classic-Car Hirers Guild will sort you out. They’re a network of companies based all around the country, from whom you can hire a vintage car for the day, the weekend or even longer. Zip around in an Austin Healey 3000 and pretend you’re Leslie Phillips. A Mark II Jaguar will turn you into Inspector Morse, while a Ford Mustang will unleash your inner Steve McQueen. Whatever you go for, these vehicles will transport you back to the days when cars smelled like cars. Drivers under 40 will wonder what that ‘choke’ thing on the dashboard is for (Jasper Carrott’s mother-in-law used to hang her handbag on it). They’ll also be amazed that there was a time before power steering – so have those biceps at the ready …
Historic and Classic-Car Hirers Guild: https://www.hchg.co.uk
Normally if your first ever driving experience is in a Ferrari, it means your father’s name begins with ‘Sheikh’. But Buyagift.co.uk can help you live the part for an hour or two. They have locations and cars around the country (a typical experience requires a minimum age of 11 and minimum height of 5 feet). Specially adapted seats and pedals allow your budding Lewis Hamilton to take control, under the supervision of experienced instructors who will also provide passenger laps to give the youngster a high-speed thrill. Just book it far enough in advance of their first proper driving lesson – that way they’ll have calmed down by the time they take to the road …